Headlines are full of activities that are bad for our health: we eat too much, we drink, and we don’t get enough exercise. But there’s a hidden factor just as damaging to our mental health – that of loneliness. Research shows that strong, loving relationships are crucial to good physical and mental health, and that when we become lonely and isolated, unhappiness, anxiety and depression can result. The following guest blog by Jenny Edwards and Paul Farmer, from the Mental Health Foundation and Mind, has been written to complement our new collection of essays, Alone in the Crowd: Loneliness and diversity.

The loneliness cause and effect

For older people, loneliness can be both a cause and effect of poor mental health. As relationships end through death or separation, children move away and social networks dwindle, older people may find themselves growing anxious and depressed.

One survey revealed that 42% of people have felt depressed because they were lonely, and we know that lonely older people are more prone to cognitive decline and dementia. Loneliness can even lead people into damaging behaviour such as alcohol and drug misuse, and it’s a known factor in suicide.

But loneliness can also be an effect of poor mental health. Older people suffering mental distress may feel there’s a stigma associated with their illness, and withdraw from social networks. They may feel awkward in company, or find families step back when they’re unable to understand their symptoms.

It’s hardly surprising that two-thirds of people with mental health problems feel lonely.

“I thought nothing could change”

When older people suffer a devastating combination of loneliness and mental distress, they may feel hopeless. As one person said, “After living a life full of loneliness, I thought nothing could change.”

But there’s much that society and individuals can do to tackle loneliness, helping bring people back to good mental health and the realisation that “things can actually get better.”

Change for the better

Communities come into their own in helping reduce isolation. Faith groups and voluntary organisations offer many ways to combat loneliness, from walking and gardening groups to arts events.

Local government can build the idea of togetherness into housing and communities, and GPs can direct patients to helpful community groups. Therapies such as mindfulness can help encourage people to cherish their own mental health.

The talking cure

Perhaps the most effect cure for loneliness is the most simple: talking. Social media can bring people together instantly across hundreds of miles, such as through Mind’s ‘Elefriends’ peer support community, while facilities such as Skype and Facetime help lonely older people feel connected to their loved ones.

We also need to talk about loneliness and mental health, raising awareness of the dangers of leaving our older people to grow lonely. Crucially, we need to realise that together we have the power to make sure no-one faces old age feeling isolated, depressed and alone.